Recently, a very interesting question has been posed to me. Should the mother continue breastfeeding even if she has the flu? The answer to this question is not an easy one because there are pros and cons, and they should both be weighed when deciding whether to breastfeed or not during an influenza infection.
Breastfeeding Versus Formula During Vaccinations
In general, breastfeeding is much better both for the baby and the mother than bottle formula feeding. The reason for this is that, first of all, breast milk is very rich in IgA type antibodies. These general antibodies protect the baby from gastrointestinal infections. Without these antibodies, infections would be very common as the baby’s immune system is not fully developed and is thus vulnerable. A small proportion of these antibodies are also absorbed into the bloodstream of the baby and offer some protection from other infections, such as respiratory infections. But this kind of protection is very limited, so it is a good idea to temporarily switch the baby to bottle formula feeding if the mother is experiencing the flu or any other type of respiratory infection. There are simply not enough IgA antibodies from the breast milk in the baby’s blood to provide significant protection from the influenza virus.
Furthermore, the baby’s immune system is not fully developed and thus usually not providing sufficient protection.
Another point to take into consideration is the proximity of the baby and the mother while breastfeeding. This kind of proximity is highly favorable for the influenza virus to spread from the mother to the baby, especially during sneezing and coughing. The exception to this recommendation is when the mother is recently vaccinated for influenza.
Such vaccinations cause the production of protective antibodies specific for the influenza virus in the mother. When breastfeeding, these antibodies pass to the baby, providing protection from the flu. The same concept applies for vaccinations against tetanus, whooping cough, and diphtheria. Exceptions are vaccinations for yellow fever and smallpox, which can cause encephalitis (i.e. inflammation of the brain) and vaccinia (i.e. a skin eruption due to the smallpox vaccine). Simply put, the mother is encouraged to vaccinate herself for all common infections except for yellow fever and smallpox. The reason for this is that her antibodies will pass to the baby and thus protect the baby from these infections. If the mother is not recently vaccinated for influenza, I recommend temporarily switching to bottle formula feeding and to limit close contact with the baby while infected with the flu. This can be achieved by having the other partner or a caregiver feed the baby.
So why do I say temporarily switch to bottle feeding? As I mentioned above, breastfeeding in general is much better.
Breastfeeding’s Many Benefits
In addition to providing the protective IgA antibodies, it has the perfect proportion of protein, fats and carbohydrates.
Another very important point is the significance of the bonding experience between the mother and the baby. This is very important for the emotional bond, emotional stability and love between the mother and child. Such bonding has been used to explain why breast fed infants have better mental health later in life. They are much less likely to suffer from depression, attention issues (such as ADHD) and delinquent behaviour. The bonding afforded by breastfeeding also makes the mother more attentive to the baby’s needs in general, which is of course beneficial both for the mother and the baby.
There are, however, other important ways that breastfeeding is better than formula feeding. Formula feeding causes the baby to have more frequent arousals from sleep at two to three months of age. This may be the cause why formula fed babies have double the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). This terrible occurrence has been speculated to be caused by the baby turning face down in cradle in the middle of the night due to a awakening. Without the capability of keeping the head raised or turning over, the baby simply cannot breathe. With the crying muffled, many times the parents cannot make it to the baby on time. This is also why it is so important to lay the baby down always on his back. I would go the extra length to put some pillows or cushions around the baby during the night so as to make it more difficult for the baby to turn over.
Breastfeeding has also been shown to reduce the risk of the baby developing both diabetes types 1 and 2 later in life, as well as reducing the risk of developing childhood obesity. Other important benefits are reducing the risks of developing allergies and a very serious intestinal infection in the baby called necrotizing enterocolitis. This is an infection that more commonly occurs in premature babies but not always. When this occurs, the survival rate is usually not more than 50%. It is most likely the IgA antibodies in the mother’s milk that afford protection from this devastating condition.
Finally, two more important points for the mother. Breastfeeding may help to shed the extra pounds of body weight accumulated during the pregnancy (due to more eating and less exercise in general). The breast milk is very rich in fat (which is beneficial for the baby) and as such helps eliminate fat molecules from the mother, which may help return to pre-pregnancy weight.
As a last note, breastfeeding also causes the release of specific hormones in the mother (namely prolactin and oxytocin) which help the mother relax and have better sleep in between attending to the baby’s needs. This may be beneficial for both the mother and the baby. The mother can rest better between attending to the baby and be more relaxed during the baby’s crying episodes. This may reduce the anxiety and frustration that may be associated with excessive crying, again allowing the mother to be more attentive to the baby’s needs.
As you can see, the list of benefits has piled up, and I will not be surprised as more benefits are discovered as research into breastfeeding continues.
Thanks for reading.